Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn & the Holocaust: Why does evil prosper?

Wednesday, 15 April, 2015 - 6:00 pm

The Holocaust was one of the most tragic events of the 20th century and, according to many, in human history. The written works documenting this horrific period are vast and as time goes on will almost definitely continue to increase due to the highly systematic and organized method of the attempted extermination of an entire people in the heart of civilised and cultured Europe.


In addition to the huge body of literature regarding the actual events of the Holocaust, significant literature has been produced on responses to the Holocaust. As the Holocaust targeted not only a people but also a religious group, much has been written on Jewish religious responses. Rabbi Ephraim Oshry (1914-2013), who served as the spiritual leader of the Kovno Ghetto wrote responses on the Jewish legal aspects of the Holocaust.  Jewish spiritual responses were written by, amongst others, Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapira of Piaseczno, Poland (1889–3 November 1943) in Esh Kodesh, who was killed in Trawniki concentration camp; Rabbi Shlomoh Zalman Unsdorfer of Bratislava (1888 - 1944), who was killed in Auschwitz and Rabbi Elhanan Wasserman (1874 – 6 July, 1941), who was killed in the Kovno Ghetto.  Some of these writings have been collected and presented in Wrestling with G-d: Jewish Theological Responses during and after the Holocaust by Steven Katz, Shlomo Biderman and Gershon Greenberg.


This essay aims to look at the theological response of one of the greatest Jewish spiritual leaders of the first half of the 20th century, the sixth Rebbe (spiritual leader) of the Chabad Lubavitch Chasidic movement, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn (1880-1950), known as the Frierdiker (previous) Rebbe, or by his acronym Rayatz, who was living in Warsaw at the time of the Nazi invasion in 1939.


Rebbe.jpgThe Rayatz was born in the Russian town of Lyubavitchi on 9 June 1880 and took over the reigns of leadership after his father, the fifth Chabad Lubavitch Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom Dovber Schneersohn passed away in 1920. The Rayatz was arrested by the communists in 1927 for his high profile communal work in teaching Judaism in Soviet Russia, moved to Riga in 1928, and relocated to Poland in 1934, residing in Warsaw at the time of the Nazi bombardment that began 1 September 1939. He was caught in Warsaw when the bombardment decisively intensified on 25th September and the city fell and was captured by the Nazis on 27th September 1939.


There was major concern for the Rayatz’s safety during this time, as over 25,800 civilians died in the bombings and the subsequent fighting that took place on the streets of Warsaw. The bombardment caused damage to forty percent of buildings and completely destroyed ten percent. With tremendous effort and the help of a number of influential officials in the US and Germany the Rayatz managed to escape Warsaw. In brief, a New York lawyer and legal councillor for the Lubavitch movement in New York, Sam Kramer, contacted the legal team of US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who in turn contacted the assistant chief of the US State Department European Affairs Division, Robert Pell, who had influential German contacts. Pell contacted Helmut Wolthat, a prominent Nazi Party member and expert in international industry and economics, who contacted Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, the head of the Abwehr, the Nazi intelligence-gathering agency. Canaris, who ultimately was executed in 1942, as part of the roundup of alleged conspirators on Hitler’s life, tasked Ernst Bloch, who had a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother, to trawl the streets of Warsaw and find the Rayatz. With the Rayatz a citizen of Latvia since 1928 when he left the USSR the plan was to have him travel safely back to Latvia. Bloch found the Rayatz and they travelled together covertly in a first class cabin to Berlin and then via Latvian diplomatic protection to Riga, where the Rayatz awaited safe passage to the United States. After a twelve-day voyage the Rayatz finally arrived on the shores of the United States in New York on 19 March 1940.


The sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe thus managed to escape Warsaw and the subsequent erection of the Warsaw Ghetto between October and November 1940 and its liquidation in the summer of 1942, allowing him to only just escape the Holocaust unscathed. Nevertheless, he witnessed the desperation of the Jews under the Nazi bombardment of Warsaw, and the impending fate of the Jews of Eastern Europe who were left behind, unable to escape the onslaught that was to come. This left him with deep psychological and physical strain until his passing in 1950.


The theological writings of the Rayatz during the war years provide an important window into his spiritual approach to the realities of the Holocaust and the theological challenges they presented to his spiritual world. In this essay we will focus on the year of 1941.  The Rayatz had already arrived in the US and he was able to express himself freely and was deeply conscious of the fate of his fellow Jews who were left behind.


Two distinct issues are addressed in the writings of the Rayatz during those years: 1:  The spiritual calling of man in that difficult period of history. 2:  The theological understanding and perspective relating to the Divine relationship with the world.


Regarding the first issue, the Rayatz was clear about what the calling of man should be during the Holocaust. He wrote four proclamations in 1941 relating to the crisis in Europe in his journal Hakeriah Vehakedushah. [1] A central theme in these proclamations is that the painful events in Europe are a sign of the impending and imminent arrival of the Messianic era that according to Jewish teaching may be preceeded by great Jewish suffering, known as the birth pangs of the Messianic era, as recorded in the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 98a).


In these proclamations there is the absolute and urgent imperative for the Jewish people to do “Teshuva”, to return to G-d in order bring about the imminent redemption sooner and thus to prevent greater tragedy. He bemoaned the assimilation of world Jewry in the West seeing it as akin to the destruction of the soul of the Jewish people, while the destruction of the body of the Jewish people was taking place in the East.


This essay will address the second issue: the theological understanding and perspective relating to the Divine relationship with the world. What might be a Jewish spiritual approach to reality when reality appears to be so diametrically opposed to the idea of a good world created by a good G-d? There seems to be a disparity between patterns of nature in the universe that allows for evil to exist as part of the fabric of the world on the one hand, and G-d on the other Who knows no evil. Is it possible for all this to be seen not as a dichotomy but rather all as expressions of the One G-d who is beyond nature?


If we are to say there is a dichotomy, then reality becomes validated and one must recognize the nature of the world as such – its ability to build and destroy, to bring forth life and decimate life. It is nevertheless our mission to choose to do good and reject evil. If there is no dichotomy and nature is merely an expression of the Divine then this appears to deny the real existence of the world and the way we see good and evil.


In the style of the teachings of the Rayatz, as with the other Chabad Chassidic leaders there is no explicit answer to this question in an historic context, as Chabad philosophical teachings focus on the spiritual and are not centred around historic events.


However, when we look at the ideas he raises in his lectures during the tragic year of 1941 when incredible suffering was taking place in the Warsaw Ghetto and mass shootings were being carried out by the Einsatzgruppen across Eastern Europe, we can glean important observations that can be construed as directly referencing a theological approach to these tragedies, some by inference and some more explicitly.


Three Essays of the Rayatz 1941: two realities or one?


In an essay of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, 22 September 1941 (Sefer Hamaamarim 5702 p. 3), the Rayatz argues there are two levels of revelation of the Divine in the world, indicated in the etymologically plural Hebrew name of G-d - ‘Elo-him’.


There is one level of the Divine that is within the world and vivifies it but at the same time remains completely concealed to the degree that He allows the ‘ways of the wicked to be prosperous’ (Jeremiah 12:1). There is another level of the Divine within the world that is revealed, as during the time of the Solomonic Temple (Ethics of Our Fathers: Avot 5:5), where the expression of G-d was plainly revealed through miracles. It was evident that the reality of nature is a manifestation of an expression of the Divine that is in truth beyond nature.


This idea that  nature may be seen as a mere expression of G-d that is beyond nature can be found with greater emphasis in another essay written by the Rayatz on 8 November, 1941 (Sefer Hamaamarim 5702 p. 55). This essay discusses the Biblical verse ‘And he planted an eishel (orchard) in Beer-Sheba, and he called there in the name of the Lord, the G-d of the world’ (Genesis 21:33). The Rayatz poses the question; why is this piece of detailed information about the planting of an orchard and its location important in the context of the Bible telling us the great virtue of Abraham that he called out to society his belief in monotheism - ‘in the name of the Lord, the G-d of the world’?


The Hebrew word Beer means a well. This is a metaphor for the yearning a Jewish person has for the Divine, similar to the water of an artesian well that rises due to pressure from within the ground to the surface. Calling the place ‘in the name of the Lord, the G-d of the world’ refers to the belief that although there is knowledge that nature was created through a concealment of the Divine, validating the fabric of the world and nature as we see it, in truth, however, the combination of ‘the name of the Lord’ with the G-d of the world’ implies that not only is the creation of the world through a force of the Divine that is beyond nature, but even the pattern of nature itself is an expression of G-d that is essentially beyond nature. The essay concludes with the notion that nature itself is an expression of the Divine that is beyond nature.


Both these essays offer an insight into the Rayatz’s view of reality at a critical and tragic time in Jewish history. The reality of nature that allows the wicked to flourish is not a true reality. The true reality is that it is an expression of the Divine that gives an appearance of the constraints of nature but in truth there is no such thing as nature as we know it, but rather mere expression of the Divine that is beyond nature. This theology in the context of the Holocaust appears to reflect a deep-seated belief in G-d and a view of reality that invalidates world experience as it appears to us. If only the world would be elevated to this level of openness of the Divine there would not be the experience of suffering and evil in the world. This is similar to the Maimonidean view on suffering in the Guide for the Perplexed (3:10‑12). 


The question that becomes apparent is how is it possible for a human being to reach a level whereby the nature of the world becomes the reality of that which is truly beyond nature? Maimonides would argue that it is possible to achieve this through perfect contemplation of the Divine (Mishneh Torah, Sefer Hamada chapter 1). In the context of the Holocaust, it appears that the Rayatz gives the answer to this question in a third essay on 9 December, 1941, corresponding to 19th Kislev, commemorating the day of the release of his ancestor, the founder of the Chabad Lubavitch movement, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, from Tsarist imprisonment (Sefer Hamamarim 5702 19Kislev p. 77). The essay draws on the introduction to the Kabbalistic work Tikunei Zohar, where it states:


           ‘Elijah opened his discourse and said, Master of the worlds, You are One without count. You are the Supernal of all Supernals, the Concealed of all Concealed. There are no thoughts that can grasp You at all. You brought out ten corrections that we call the ten Sefirot, to establish the behavior of concealed worlds that cannot be revealed and worlds that can be revealed.’


The essay aims to explain the contrast between the opening ‘You are One without count’ – the transcendent - and ‘You brought out ten corrections that we call the ten Sefirot’ - that actions the spiritual creating force for the world to exist. The number ten is how G-d constrains Himself to bring forth lofty spiritual worlds, as well as the physical world, whereas the notion ‘One without count’ is the essence of the Divine that is beyond all form of limitation. At the end of the essay (ibid p. 82), the Rayatz concludes with the following idea: it is possible to draw down the ‘One without count’ - the transcendent - into the ‘ten corrections that we call the ten Sefirot’ – existence - through the surrender of oneself in self-sacrifice for the sake of the study of Torah and observance of Mitzvot. This means that through this spiritual process of the revelation of the transcendent into the ‘ten fixings that we call Sefirot’, there will be a corresponding revelation of that which is beyond nature to be manifest within nature, thus, the Rayatz concludes, protecting nature itself in order that the service of the study of Torah and observance of Mitzvot may be done in peace and tranquility.


Thus, we have three Chassidic philosophical essays written over the months of September, November and December 1941 that appear to lay out a distinct theology relating to a spiritual view of reality of the nature of the world and the wicked who prosper.


When looking closely, however, a subtle contradiction becomes obvious. Whereas in the September and November essay the Rayatz writes that the reality of the nature of the world is in truth merely an expression of that which is beyond nature and that there is no difference between nature and the transcendent and miraculous, in December he conditions this on the surrendering of the self in self sacrifice in order for there to be this higher reality, which in turn will protect the nature of the world and allow the Jewish people to live in tranquility.


The Rebbe’s approach confirming two realities and the yearning for tranquility


Rebbe 1954.jpgIn 1954, after the passing of the Rayatz, his son-in-law and successor, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn (1902-1994), known as the Rebbe, addresses the above theological approach of his father-in-law in his own essay on the topic, subsequently edited and published in 1990. The Rebbe, born in Ukraine in 1902, studied in Berlin until 1933, followed by the Sorbonne in Paris until the outbreak of the Second World War and managed to flee Europe in June 1941 from Vichy France via Lisbon to New York. He thus also witnessed firsthand the rise of the Nazis in Berlin and France and the onset of the persecution of Jews in Europe.


In his essay (Sefer Hamaamarim Melukat vol. 5 p. 105), he quotes the same passage from the Tikkunei Zohar as the Rayatz, and then focuses directly on the last few lines of the December 1941 essay,mentioned above, that states one must surrender oneself in self sacrifice for there to be a revelation of beyond nature within nature. His central question is similar to our question above: why this is necessary, since the Tikkunei Zohar connects nature itself to the Divine that is beyond nature.


The essay proceeds to dissect the Jewish theological view on the idea of nature, the idea of form and matter in Jewish philosophical and mystical thought, and then concludes that the pattern of nature is in fact invalidated as an objective reality and is merely a expression of the transcendent infinity of the Divine (Ohr ein sof l’mala malo ad ein ketz). The purpose of surrendering oneself in self-sacrifice is to effectuate this reality in a state that is revealed to the human being. In truth, however, the reality of the nature of the world and that which is beyond nature are in essence one and the same. This would seem to confirm the Rebbe’s view of reality in this context as consonant with that of his father-in-law, the Rayatz, in his earlier essays of 1941.


In the concluding remarks though the Rebbe appears to move away from the earlier 1941 essays of his father-in-law and argues that in the final analysis nature and beyond nature are ultimately two realities of the Divine, not one and the same, and the surrendering of oneself in self sacrifice allows for a revelation of the essence of the Divine - ‘One Who cannot be counted’ – to combine the two realities into one, thus ‘protecting’ the nature of the world from evil and suffering and provide the Jewish people tranquility.


It is therefore interesting that whereas the Rayatz, moves between these two ideas, and talks of two realities only in the December 1941 essay, the Rebbe argues to validate the view of the December essay that the reality of the nature of the world is distinct from the Divine that is beyond nature. He thus sees the reality of the world where evil can be perpetrated and the wicked prosper as due to a great concealment of the Divine within the world. It is through the self-sacrifice of man connecting to G-d that brings the higher reality of beyond nature into the reality of the world. This profound and difficult challenge presented to us by these great 20th century Jewish spiritual leaders combines a belief in the spiritual concealment of the Divine existence that allows evil to prosper and our spiritual empowerment to dispel this concealment and bring the world to a state of tranquility and peace through acts of charity and kindness that transcends the self.


[1] The first one was entitled Kol Kore fun’m Lubavitcher Rabin on 26 May 1941, published in June 1941; the second was written on 11 June 1941, entitled Tsvayter Kol Kore fun’m Lubavitcher Rabin, published in July, 1941; a third was written on 8 July, 1941, entitled Driter Kol Kore fun’m Lubavitcher Rabin, published August 1941; and a fourth on 11 September 1941, entitled Ferter Kol Kore fun’m Lubavitcher Rabin Shlita, published October 1942.


Kindly edited by Mrs. Sora Feldman and Mr. Dovid Brackman 


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